On the first day of his first art show in New York City, 26-year-old Vito Bonanno sold a drawing.
Then he sold two more.
Some artists can only dream of that.
That drawing — it went for $250 — was one in Bonanno’s stoplight series. Standing in front of a wall covered with his stoplight artworks at the 17th annual Outsider Art Fair, Bonanno admits the obvious: “I’m obsessed with stoplights.”
It’s not just any obsession. Bonanno has three traffic lights in his Westville apartment. And in that space, he has hundreds of whimsical stoplight drawings.
It’s also an innocent obsession. He can’t help himself — and that’s clear by the insouciance of what he says next.
“I’ve never even seen a blue one,” he says.
A blue stoplight, that is. Bonanno is autistic and his obsession is ever present: He draws imaginary stoplights and real ones at specific intersections in New Haven, including blacked-out stoplights to represent stoplights out of commission due to construction projects.
In this series, Bonanno spraypaints the backgrounds — color combinations that look like sunsets or represent rainy afternoons — and then, using pastels, draws a loose grid on top. Then he works quickly to fill in the grid with whatever comes to my mind.
“I’ve been doing grids since 1997 when I was 14 years old,” he says.
One grid, he tells me, is filled with “an angry coconut man from Cuba,” mega-fruit candy (a fruit-shaped bubble gum that Bonanno is “obsessed with”), his dad’s stereo, a Home Depot display toilet and several stoplights.
Looking at Bonanno’s art work without him there to decode it, an observer would never know the logic behind it.
“It all has meaning,” says Bonanno’s mom, Cindy Watson. “These memories, instead of getting stored in the back of his mind, they’re part of his day to day. It’s an active part of his brain. I think that’s not uncommon for a lot of these artists. That’s why their stuff is so compelling.”
Katro Storm, a New Haven artist who’s been acting as Bonanno’s mentor for the last few months, says that Bonanno’s art has inspired him “to not waste a brushstroke. Everything he does has a significance to it,” he says.
Storm and Bonanno were introduced by Margaret Bodell, an arts promoter who returned to New Haven after spending two decades at a New York City art gallery she co-owns.
Bodell has participated in New York’s Outsider Art Fair since its inception and this year showed Bonanno’s art there, along with three artists from a Watertown group home and a few pieces of art by inmates at Connecticut prisons.
The Bonanno and Storm pairing is a kind of pilot project for a program Bodell has seen work in other states: professional artists mentoring “artists with issues.”
“Mentors are so important,” Bodell says, “because they can talk as equals. It’s about their work.”
Bonanno was one of the few artists present at the art fair, held the first weekend of February in Midtown Manhattan. Twenty bucks at the door got patrons and collectors access to 38 national and international art galleries representing outsider artists.